Live from New York—the city that brought you Kiss, Twisted Sister, Anthrax, White Zombie, and the Plasmatics—it’s heavy metal on Saturday night! Alas, as with other hometown hard rock heroes the Ramones, none of those Big Apple metal battalions ever got a guest shot on Saturday Night Live.
Fret not, though, headbangers and knee-slappers alike, as SNL not only came to embrace heavy metal throughout its now-forty-year run, the show actually contributed mightily to metal history both intentionally (as with the introduction of Wayne and Garth) and otherwise (as when some bands shouted obscenities and/or effectively staged a riot).
Here now are the ten most metal moments in the history of Saturday Night Live.
1. More Cowbell
Airdate: April 8, 2000
Host: Christopher Walken
Arguably, the single most beloved sketch in the history of Saturday Night Live—“More Cowbell”—is also, inarguably, the show’s single most heavy metal moment.
The instant classic parody of VH1 Behind the Music takes on the recording of Blue Öyster Cult’s 1976 masterwork, “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” Host Christopher Walken, as BÖC producer Bruce Dickinson, repeatedly interrupts to tell the band that the track sounds good, but it just needs one more thing: “More cowbell!” Eventually, he goes on to declare, “I got a fever! And the only cure… is more cowbell!”
As the band member on cowbell, Will Ferrell uproariously raises his game each time to the point that no one on screen can keep a straight face, and it’s impossible to not to crack up right along with them.
This moment of utter comedic perfection (appropriately) rang loud and true to an entire planet of rock fans. By the very next day, concert venues would forever after ring out with cries of “More cowbell!” both onstage and off.
Here’s a bit of trivia, too boot. BÖC devotees will recognize Chris Parnell as vocalist E. Bloom and Chris Kattan as guitarist Buck Dharma, but the musician Will Ferrell portrays Joe Bouchard—the brother of the band’s drummer Albert Bouchard, and the guy who actually did play cowbell on “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”
2. Aerosmith Jams With Wayne And Garth
Airdate: February 17, 1990
Host: Tom Hanks
Just after Bill and Ted and right before Beavis and Butt-Head, pop culture’s best-loved teenage headbangers were Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, SNL’s co-hosts of Aurora, Illinois’s cable access hit, Wayne’s World.
Before the duo famously met Alice Cooper in their 1992 big screen blockbuster, the boys got to jam with Aerosmith on their very own theme song—courtesy of Tom Hanks as Garth’s cousin Barry, who just also happened to be an Aerosmith roadie.
3. Spinal Tap Debuts “Christmas With the Devil”
Airdate: Barry Bostwick
Host: May 5, 1984
In perfect Spinal Tap fashion, the perpetually befuddled comedic metal masters debuted their 1983 Yuletide single, “Christmas With the Devil,” in May 1984.
Tap’s SNL performance of the song is an elaborate affair with snowflakes falling, a giant horned demon skull in a Santa hat with light-up eyes and a chomping jaw , angelic backup singers in chains, and elves pulling a smoldering Christmas tree in Santa’s sleigh.
Just as funny is a preceding interview segment in which host Barry Bostwick interviews Tap’s core members David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Chris Guest), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer).
When asked about Satanism, Smalls says, “I believe a man’s relationship with the devil is a very private thing.” Tufnel then chimes in: “Look, we’re not rushing about the streets, flinging our hats about, saying, ‘Oh, I love Satan! He’s my master! Yeah, look at me, Mr. Satanism!’ You know, sure, it’s great stuff but… you know, you don’t hang your whole life on it.”
4. Metallica plays with Marianne Faithfull
Airdate: December 6, 1997
Host: Nathan Lane
The histories of both heavy metal and Saturday Night Live may have swerved in very different directions had Metallica played the show the first time they were scheduled to, all the way back in March 1987.
Alas, the band that was still reeling from the death of bassist Cliff Burton the previous September and was in the process of stripping back from Master of Puppets with Garage Days Re-Revisited never got the chance, as frontman James Hetfield injured himself skateboarding accident—breaking his wrist for the second time in two years.
A decade later, after having become the biggest hard rock act in the history of the planet, Metallica got their one Saturday Night Live gig to date, performing “The Memory Remains” and “Fuel” from Reload, their 1997 album that has remarkably sold more than six million copies worldwide and remains largely despised by the group’s own fans.
Joining Metallica onstage for “The Memory Remains” was Marianne Faithfull, the famed 1960s pop chanteuse and Rolling Stones muse. She recreated her “da-da-da-da-da/da-da-da-da-da” singing bit from the recorded version of “Memory” with expert assurance.
5. System of a Down Screams F-bomb
Airdate: May 7, 2005
Host: Johnny Knoxville
In the ongoing saga of Saturday Night Live’s without-a-bleeping-net broadcast policy, a foul-mouthed few have managed to bombard heavy metal’s favorite four-letter word onto the unprotected ears of the audience.
First was Paul Shaffer who, during a 1980 bit where he repeatedly used the word “floggin’,” mistakenly let slip the term he was obviously parodying.
A year later, would-be breakout star Charles Rocket, in a spoof of Dallas’s “Who Shot J.R.?” gimmick, looked right in the camera and blurted, “I want to know who the f— shot me!” That very same night, Prince managed to get the word out while singing, “Party Up.” In 1990, Prince’s Purple Rain rival Morris Day asked “Where the f— this chicken come from?”
Other musicians who sang in the key of F include Aerosmith and Metallica on the very SNL episodes already cited on this list. Among the comedy performers who also accidentally f’ed up are Norm MacDonald in 1997 and Jenny Slate in 2009.
Except for Rocket, who was summarily fired for his f-ing offense, all these outbursts either snuck past public notice during musical performances or were clearly, well, f-ups on the part of the speakers. Not so, it seems, was the case with System of a Down in 2005.
While censors were on alert to dump out of any unsavory lyrics during the band’s run through of “BYOB,” guitarist Daron Malakian caught them off guard just past the four-minute mark, when he unexpectedly—and unmistakably—roared out, “F— yeah!”
6. Tenacious D Performs “The Metal”
Airdate: December 6, 2006
Host: Matthew Fox
After being fittingly introduced by SNL host Matthew Fox in war-paint and a Roman soldier uniform, Jack Black (JB) and Kyle Gass (KG) blared out “The Metal,” their anthemic ode to music’s mightiest and most undefeatable form.
Accompanied by a giant iron-clad demon robot as the spirit of The Metal itself, JB runs through the rival genres that tried and fail to unseat the heaviosity from Hell.
SNL cast members then come out in the costumed roles of those other music types, with Seth Myers and Maya Rudolph as new wave, Andy Samberg and Jason Sudeikis as grunge, Bill Hader and Amy Poehler as punk rock, and Kristen Wiig as techno.
All, as expected, fall in defeat before The Metal.
7. Korn Busts Out Custom H.R. Giger Microphone
Airdate: November 19, 2005
Host: Eva Longoria
Nü metal marauders Korn stood out when they performed “Twisted Transistor” and “Freak on a Leash” on Saturday Night Live first because they were among very few hard rock bands that guested during season 31 and second, not to mention more metallically, because frontman Jonathan Davis unexpectedly wailed into a bizarre, ornate, eye-popping one-of-a-kind microphone stand designed and constructed by Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger.
Giger’s metal cred spans from creating the supremely heavy, acid-blooded title monstrosity from the Alien movies and more directly by supplying the cover images for (among others) To Mega Therion by Celtic Frost, How the Gods Kill by Danzig, and Brain Salad Surgery by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.
8. Rage Against the Machine Plays Show Hosted By Republic Prez Candidate Steve Forbes
Airdate: April 13, 1996
Host: Steve Forbes
Hardcore left-wing rockers Rage Against the Machine good-naturedly agreed to perform on an hosted by billionaire business scion Steve Forbes, who was then a serious contender for the Republican presidential ticket running on a flat tax policy.
All seemed fine as the band tore through its shotgun-it-to-the-man barnburner “Bulls on Parade” in their Che Guevara t-shirts, but, according to Rage’s Tom Morello, a pre-performance incident ending up getting the group booted from the studio and banned from SNL forever.
Apparently, Rage wanted to decorate the set with upside-down American flags and then agreed not to after producers spoke to them in rehearsal. Come show time, the band’s roadies hung the flags anyway, prompting NBC stagehands to tear them down just before coming back from commercial. Regardless, Rage pulled off an absolutely pummeling performance.
Morello says that Rage were told they’d get no second song and were forced out the door, but not before bassist Tim Commerford could “shred” one of the flags and throw it at Forbes’ Secret Service agents. He also claims that numerous SNL cast and crew members subsequently voiced their support or rage vs. the network’s no-fun patrols. Vive le revolucion, dude.
9. “Kiddie Metal” by Guns N’ Roses
Airdate: November 2, 1991
Host: Kiefer Sutherland
To the delight of a kid going to bed, Axl and Slash wail through numbers such as “Old McDonald” and “Jimmy Crack Corn” before Slash gets a nonsensical “Mother Goose” solo, and they’re joined by Sebastian Bach and Rachel Bowlan from Skid Row, the episode’s musical guest, for “Dueling ABCs.”
10. Fear’s Punk/Metal Halloween Crossover
Airdate: October 31, 1981
Host: Donald Pleasance
While the great punk/metal crossover is usually pegged to mid-’80s thrash releases such as Among the Living by Anthrax and Reign in Blood by Slayer, SNL actually hit the middle of extreme rock’s subcultural mosh pit first on Halloween night in 1981.
For a show hosted by horror icon Donald Pleasance, who was then promoting Halloween II, SNL celebrated the most heavy metal of all holidays by booking punk mayhem-makers Fear and bussing up Washington, D.C.-area hardcore skinheads to slamdance, stage-dive, and generally raise and unholy ruckus.
Fear exploded into a genuinely shocking set that included “Beef Baloney,” “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones,” and a chunk “Let’s Have a War,” while the punks pulverized one another, smashed equipment, and raised a visceral riot that terrified everyone in the studio along with countless millions more at home.
A promised “surprise” was to have been an appearance by ex-SNL superstar and personal friend of Fear John Belushi, but the network cut away once one of the shaven-headed hooligans grabbed a giant pumpkin on stage and ran off with it in highly menacing—and heavily metal—fashion.